Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: July 14, 2023 by Crystal Uys
There aren’t many things that are more frustrating than a cat who is finicky about her food. The problem is compounded when you’ve educated yourself about what constitutes a healthy diet for cats, but your fussy kitty will only eat dry food or highly processed wet food. What’s a cat parent to do?
What Makes Cats Finicky?
Loss of appetite, especially when it comes on suddenly, can be an indicator of a serious medical problem. When a previously healthy cats stops eating for more than 24-48 hours, this is cause for concern, and requires a veterinary visit. Cats can develop a condition called hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease, which can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.
Finicky eaters are made, not born
Finicky eaters are made, not born. Ideally, young kittens are introduced to a variety of foods and textures as soon as they begin eating solid food, beginning at the age of 4 months. By being exposed to variety at an early age, these cats will accept different foods, textures and flavors more easily than cats who have been fed the same food from kittenhood on. Kittens fed the same food all the time often refuse unfamiliar foods later in life.
Do you have the right food bowls? Most cats don’t like it when their sensitive whiskers touch the side of the bowls, so avoid narrow and deep bowls. Plastic food bowls can give off smells that are offensive to sensitive feline noses, and they can also cause chin rashes in sensitive cats. Make sure food bowls are kept scrupulously clean, but don’t use detergents with a strong scent to wash bowls and the area around the bowls.
Mixing medication or supplements into meals
While giving medications with food can work well, don’t mix it in with the cat’s regular food. Most medications and supplements alter the flavor of food, and even though your cat may eat the food with the medication mixed in the first few times, you may be inadvertently creating a food aversion. If you must use food to give medication, use a small amount of a different food, and then feed the cat’s regular meal.
Hard core dry food addicts
One reason why it can be so challenging to get a cat to accept healthier food is in part due to what pet food manufacturers do to make dry food so enticing to cats. As part of the production process, the baked or extruded kibble is sprayed with animal digest (and yes, it’s pretty much as disgusting as it sounds: digest is material that results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue.) Cats love the taste of these digests; for some cats, it’s like kitty crack and actually causes them to be addicted. Some cats also love the texture of dry food and may resist the drastic change in texture from dry to grain-free wet food.
Transitioning to a Healthier Diet
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need meat in their diet to thrive. Their systems aren’t designed to digest carbohydrates. A raw diet is one of the best ways to fulfill cats’ nutritional requirements, but raw food, even a commercially prepared raw diet, may exceed the comfort level for some cat parents. I don’t think it’s necessary to take an “all or nothing” stand when it comes to feline nutrition, but I do believe that it is important to feed our cats a diet that is as minimally processed as possible. While grain-free canned food is always a better choice than dry, canned food is heat processed, which destroys many of the nutrients.
Transition slowly, and be patient
The key is to transitioning to a healthier diet is to go slow, and be patient. For some cats, it may take several months. I’ve heard of one cat whose human would put down a small amount of wet food next to his dry food every day for several weeks. He refused to touch it, so she wound up throwing it out each time. Then one day, several weeks into the transition, he gobbled up the wet food and never touched his dry food again!
Stop free choice feeding. If you leave food out at all times, stop this practice immediately. This step is critical. Feed two or three times a day, at set meal times, and take up what the cat doesn’t eat within about half an hour. She gets no other food until the next meal time. Your cat will not try anything new if you keep her bowl filled with the old, familiar food 24/7.
Be prepared that your cat will make you feel like you’re letting her starve. This phase of the process can be much harder on the human than it is on the cat. Persistence is key. A little hunger at meal times can be a powerful motivator to get a cat to accept the new food.
Gradually increase the amount of the new food, and decrease the amount of the old food, until you’re only feeding the new food.
Featured Image Credit: Valeri Vatel, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.